When your introduction to cruising is onboard small exclusive vessels like Azamara & Paul Gauguin, as mine was, you might be inclined to shun the idea of mega-ships. But there’s a time and a place for every type of vacation, and since I was travelling with a couple of friends, I welcomed the concept of a floating city. Although I greatly enjoyed those earlier intimate sailings with only a few hundred passengers, boutique ships are not for everyone. With most guests being seniors and retirees, wild fun & entertainment (for example) appear not to be high on the list of priorities, which brings me to my own experience on the Norwegian Escape.
With a capacity of 4000+ passengers, I braced myself for long waits on the Escape. But everything from checking in to getting food to embarking & disembarking on non-sea days was a breeze – I could hardly believe it. Great organization, great service.
I was expecting the cuisine to be average – but from the presentation to the taste, most of the food was amazing. (With the exception of the buffet, the free restaurants had the same menus, which I was disappointed about at first, but I realized it was more than enough for 7 days – plus quality over quantity.) Apparently NCL was the first cruise line to introduce ‘freestyle dining.’ I really appreciated not having to eat at a set time with set dining companions.
NCL was also first to introduce Studio cabins for the growing number of single travellers. It includes access to a private lounge where solo travellers can relax and mingle should they wish to do so. I had read that NCL was known for having small cabins. While bigger is always better, I had no complaints. The designers used the space well. I was most surprised and impressed with the bathroom’s size (similar to the one in my condo).
The Escape is so massive that some passengers (myself included!) don’t see everything in 7 days. There’s an Aqua Park with waterslides, a basketball court, a sports complex including a ropes course, mini golf, bowling – and a plank! Speaking of entertainment, their Cruise Director was a wonderful character. He was adored by all types of people and therefore the perfect host.
My happy place was the oversized jacuzzi which overlooked the ocean. It was a wonderful, surreal feeling staring out into the vast sea, with no sign of life or land.
Since NCL is generally considered to be a mid-range cruise line, my expectations were exceeded in several ways. In saying that, it’s possible these nice reviews are thanks in part to the fact this vessel is less than a year old, so both the ship and its staff feel fresh and new. After listening to the critique of some frequent cruisers, I would be interested in trying a ship with around half the capacity, for the following reasons.
On the Escape, aside from the kids pool, there was only one small pool for everyone else (and the loud music was nonstop) – a fact which, in my opinion, is unacceptable. It was the only area that felt overcrowded. The pool, after all, is often the focal point of any resort. Apparently, even some smaller ships offer a second, quiet adult pool area.
The Escape’s lobby and common areas, while pleasant, did not have too much of a wow factor. Apparently, some smaller ships have such impressive decor that guests like to wander and admire.
I was also surprised and disappointed that there were many more paid restaurants than complimentary ones on the Escape. Individually, neither of these complaints are overwhelming, and perhaps more than anything, highlight the shortcomings of a mega-ship when compared to smaller high-end boutique cruise lines.
As for the islands, I didn’t join any excursions because my only mission was to enjoy the picture-perfect white sand beaches I always dream about!
Before the trip, I had asked past travellers for any feedback, however their responses were pretty vague. Now I understand why – as beautiful as they are, all the beaches eventually start to blend together. St. Thomas (Magen’s Bay) was lovely. As was Tortola (Cane Garden Bay). We were extremely fortunate that it was the beginning of low season, meaning we were the only ship in port. A few weeks earlier, and a few thousand more tourists, and our experience would surely have been lessened. Nassau, however, felt chaotic, with cab drivers and tour guides fighting for your attention the moment you step on land, and then there are vendors to contend with – which certainly was the case at Cabbage Beach. (Not sure if it’s always the case, but the water was also a little rougher here.) While it’s tempting to skip the commute, I wouldn’t recommend walking to the downtown beach (Junkanoo), because there is more pollution and street noise.
The nicest surprise of the trip ended up being Miami. What a wonderful, vibrant city, which includes places of interest like Coconut Grove, Coral Gables & Little Havana. The highlight, however, was the Art Deco district of South Beach. You have the best of both worlds – a colourful, exciting city and an absolutely spectacular beach with calm blue waters and the widest stretch of sand I’ve ever seen…and hope to see again one day.